Bishops, Lay Panel at Odds
Prelates Blocking Audits, Burke Says
By Geneive Abdo
Chicago Tribune [Chicago IL]
May 12, 2004
The head of a Roman Catholic lay review board has accused U.S. Catholic bishops of returning to "business as usual" in protecting the church from the fallout of the national priest sex abuse scandal.
In a scathing letter, Illinois Appellate Judge Anne Burke charged the bishops with trying to block the 12-member review panel from conducting a second round of audits to determine if the nation's Catholic dioceses are protecting children from further sex abuse by priests.
The letter is the strongest signal to date of tension between Catholic bishops and the lay review board appointed two years ago to help clean up sex abuse in the church.
"We are very disheartened by this apparent decision to go back to `business as usual,'" Burke wrote in a March letter to Belleville, Ill., Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Those who said the bishops were never serious about breaking free from the sins, crimes and bad judgment of the past will be vindicated," Burke wrote.
She also accused some bishops of hiding their moves to block the audits. "In short, we were manipulated," Burke wrote.
The dispute centers on whether each of the 195 dioceses should be audited each year. Review board members believe the audits show whether reforms are effectively protecting children from possible sex abuse by priests. But some Catholic bishops oppose frequent audits for two reasons: Some believe the dioceses do not need to undergo frequent scrutiny if they are in compliance with new church regulations; and others believe the bishops, not the review board, should have the authority to make the decision over when the audits will occur.
Burke said Tuesday that she wrote the letter because it appeared the bishops were making it impossible to complete an audit this year. In March, review board members learned that the bishops conference did not plan to vote until November on whether to permit a second round of audits. The review board had planned for work on the second audits to begin this summer.
In addition, Burke said she became annoyed because she believes the board does not need permission from the bishops to conduct the audits, as stated in a charter the bishops approved in June 2002.
Outraged that the bishops would wait until November to vote on the issue, Burke said she decided to write the letter to Gregory. Other review board members read and edited her letter, Burke said.
"We believe that the work we have accomplished these past 22 months is perceived by the bishops as having successfully deflected national criticism. In effect, they have `dodged the bullet' and they are anxious to put these matters behind them," Burke wrote.
The letter prompted the bishops to agree to vote on the issue at a June retreat to be held outside Denver. On Monday, review board members will meet an ad hoc committee of the bishops in Chicago to discuss the issue.
Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, director of communications for the U.S. Conference of Bishops, said Tuesday the charter does not call for annual audits of the U.S. dioceses. He said bishops in June will discuss whether all dioceses need to be audited again. Some that were found in the January audit to be complying with child-protection policies might not need to undergo another audit this year, he said.
"The bishops are not saying they won't do this or do that," said Maniscalco. "We need to be involved in this decision."
Burke's letter, and responses to it, were published Tuesday on the Web site of the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newsletter that focuses on the Catholic Church. The letter and responses revealed the acrimony between the review board and the bishops.
"We were embarrassed by the tone of your letter," Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver wrote in a reply to Burke. "It assumes the worst motives on the part of the bishops despite the progress that has already been made."
Bishops need time
Another letter, written by Bishop David Ricken of Cheyenne, Wyo., said the bishops need time to make a thoughtful decision. "I do believe that, after such a storm for two years, the bishops need a bit of a break to reflect on all that has happened so that we can move ahead, thoughtfully, and prayerfully, instead of rushing in and making a lot of mistakes that we later regret," Ricken wrote.
In letters written to Gregory, other bishops accused the review board of exceeding its power.
Among those bishops opposed to more audits is Cardinal Edward Egan of New York.
Chicago's Cardinal Francis George could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Burke said she does not understand why bishops would oppose more audits.
Nicholas Cafardi, a review board member and dean of Duquesne University School of Law in Pittsburgh, said Tuesday that a second round of audits is vital to restore trust between the Catholic Church and the faithful.
"A culture of audits needs to be created," he said. "You don't create trust by doing something once and then saying that's over now and we will go on to other things."
Burke and three other members of the lay review board recently said they will leave their posts at the end of June. Burke said she was leaving the board at the end of her term because the work was time consuming and she had finished the work she came to do.
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